Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The following is a transcript of the August 7, 2013 interview that Sly Tanner conducted with Jason Ajita Mark about his new book:

Authority Under Uncertainty:

How the History of Religion Formed Our Idea of Capitalism

Sly: So what is your book, Authority Under Uncertainty, all about?:

J.A.: Well this book explains that religion gave us our idea of capitalism. It's a pretty exciting concept.

Sly: How? And wasn't this just Max Weber's idea way back in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1906?:

J.A.: Well, it was 1903, I think. But, whereas for Weber, capitalism was invented in early modern Europe, for me capitalism was really a global invention that has been brewing in human culture for thousands of years. Furthermore, Weber thought that capitalism was all about rationalized beaurocracy.

My take on it is that religion invented capitalism by inventing—or at least, rediscovering—the concept of uncertainty, in a way that happens in different times at different places, across world history.

Sly: This is something that I think readers might have trouble with. Since, doesn't religion tell us what we are certain about, or ought to be? Whether it be God or eternal life, etc.? A set of Dogmas? Or isn't this how people see religion?:

J.A.: Well, for some people yes. And for some times and types of religious practice, yes, religion in practice amounts to little more than that. But religion is not always the same thing for everyone and is not the same thing in all times in history. With that in mind, my argument about what religion is in Authority Under Uncertainty rests on two distinctions.

First, that between Archaic and Modern Religion. This is an idea that I take from religious anthropologists.And, secondly, between modern religious scriptures and religious orthodoxy—which are just all those institutions and traditions which have preserved religious scriptures.

So there I make the difference between ancient religions and modern religions—fairly widely accepted although my definitions here put a bit more emphasis on the economic factors involved than most religious anthropologists would care to do.

And the second, this distinction between modern scripture and the traditions that have grown up around them,this is an idea that is basically my own, I would say, or I give it a new emphasis. Religious anthropologists tend to lump scripture together into tradition and consider scriptures just evidence as part of a religious tradition. And I am saying, no, these are not the same thing. Of course they are connected in certain ways and I am not claiming scripture is divinely inspired while traditions and institutions are manmade or vice versa. No, my argument for this division is primarily an economic one. It's connected to that first distinction between Archaic and Modern Religion.

Sly: Okay what is that first distinction? It seems like that would be a good thing to have you explain here. You say there was a different economic situation for ancient religion than for modern religion:

J.A.: Well Archaic religions were basically the state religions in the earliest civilizations. The broad pattern in the course of human economic development across the globe over the last 10,000 years—according to archaeologists—is that humans begin to intensify their use of agriculture about 10,000 years ago in different places at different times. But this is the beginning of the neolithic transition.

Within a few thousand years of intensive agriculture, large stratified civilizations arise: Akkadians are perhaps the first acknowledged complex civilization, the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Mycenaean, etc. all around the Mediterranean. That's where it happens first. First in the fertile crescent, and the Mediterranean, slightly later in India and China, to a somewhat lesser extent in Africa, then most recently in the New World Civilizations (Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Hawaii) the same thing happens in the same order: domestication of crop species and animals, followed by big civilizations. And in these big civilizations you have all of the elements that we today recognize as being religious.
However, here is the key thing. Everything that we recognize as religious in the context of these early civilizations is controlled by the state. Or rather religious rituals, and state rule are basically inseparable. For all intensive purposes—the priests rule. Or priests and rulers comprise a small and tightly knit class.

What is more the state is also the major economic controller, redistributing grain and other goods, the major agricultural holdings and the organization are controlled by the state—which is to say by the priests. Markets and trade remain a basically marginal phenomena for a long time. And the leadership, economic-managerial classes are basically the high priests. So as I put it, religion, Archaic Religion, was basically the Public Relations for economic management in these early states. The state had a monopoly on life and ritual, and conversely, ritual and religion was the tool that helped them maintain control. Priests, and religion, the priestly PR was charged with convincing people that the leadership were making choice that were in the society's interests. Religion convinced people of what they ought to do. That meant both working and worshiping gods in the way the leaders prescribed. And above all, religion resorted to the idea of divine certainty to ritualize the life of the lower working classes, to make obedience appear as THE good above all, certain of producing divine rewards—which were, of course, imaginary.

Sly: Okay, well how does that differ from Modern Religion? Is it because now Church and State are separate?

J.A.: Well what happens, yes. Church and State, so to speak, religion and the state begin to break apart. especially in the Mediterranean. But the reason for this is historical and economic. None of these religious states lasts forever. Egypt lasts continuously for three thousand years, depending on your definition of continuity. That is the longest and that is an almost immeasurably long time, a third longer than the distance from our time to Jesus's time. And Egypt continued in a way that seems to have been much more unified than anything we might imagine as a unified line of Christian civilization—though Egypt is less well documented, historically, than what we know of the last 10,000 years of Christian Europe.

However most of the early fertile crescent civilizations did not last nearly as long as Egypt. Hence, by the time you get to the final millennium BCE in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean, you have a big jumble of leftover religious traditions and political histories that document the obvious fact that, hey, the claim to divine certainty and a set of carefully coded rituals is far from a guarantee that the gods are going to extend any nation and the line of its priestly rulers into a perpetual future. There is all of the sudden, plenty of evidence that religiously dominated control economies can fail and there is a whole new mistrust of priestly promises about divine certainty and social prosperity.

So what this means is that history kind of pries religion and the state apart. This separation was not enacted by decree, as we might imagine, given that our modern constitutions declare that religion must by law be separated from one another. In fact, history and nature separated religion and the state but at their origins, they were one and the same.

Its in this context where you get the birth of what we would recognize as some of the transitional moments of society and religion that are documented in the Judaic Old Testament and Greek philosophy. You also get some carefully codified skepticism or rethinking of state power in the East with the revolutionary life of Buddha and other Indic sages, and also in the texts of Taoism and Confucianism. This all centers at around the middle third of the final millenium BCE. It's what religious scholars call the Axial Age. But I am just trying to give a very simple political economic explanation for why all of these new phenomena emerge at this time: fragmentation of state and religion.

Sly: Alright so why do you consider scripture and tradition as being separate in this new stage?:

J.A.: Well, its important to note that Archaic Religions do not appear to have had much in the way of scriptures—at least not as we think of it. My economic argument is that they did not need to. Priests of Archaic Religion ran the state—and the economy for that matter—so revelation, prophecy, most of the magic etc. all of this was made up ad hoc as was necessary for priestly leaders to get people to stay obedient. Faith was Public Relations.

But when priests no longer run the state, they now have the problem of making their own institutions. And these new non-state priestly institutions now have the problem of bargaining with states, property holders, military and economic powers etc. in order to survive. Now this shift is not so clear cut as I am making it but in a broad strokes outline over the course of the thousands of years since the earliest states up until the first millennium BC in the Mediterranean, this is basically what happens. This is the condition of the emergence of modern scriptures and orthodoxies as we know them.

So what this means, when you have religions competing with each other and dealing with states that are competing with each other, in this situation religions need to come up with a rationale for why they are the authentic religion. No leader or property holder wants to be caught believing and practicing a religion that is wrong. Thus religions need a record of their origin, some kind of formal proof of why they exist. This was the meaning of scripture. And really, scripture distinguishes modern religion from Archaic religion in a significant way.

The key thing about scripture is that once it is fixed, it basically cannot change. Or the ability to change it is limited, because the more it changes, the less authentic it seems. Meanwhile, tradition is subject to change and can be remade in more or less whatever way the religious institutions needed in order to help the religion grow in power and make the necessary alliances with states and property. Much more flexible.

The Catholic Church is, of course, the leading example of this. For basically 1700 years, the church has pursued what economists looking at religion have called a “Religious Monopoly” in Europe which lasted, really up until the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century. The church could shift and change their dogmas, the pope could make new pronouncements, appoint saints, change the form of the sacraments, etc. All of these changes would affirm the belief that the church was certainly ordained by God, that the church could pronounce God's will on earth and therefore that the church was needed to divinely ordain kings. That was the major thing. In this we see the church becoming more like the Archaic religions, after all, at least in terms of tradition with one key difference: The church can never get a state all to themselves, and for this reason they can never get rid of the Gospels and go ahead and just rewrite them however they wanted.

Once the New Testament was set in the third century BC, right around the time Constantine the Emperor of Rome (in Constantinople) converts to Christianity, it couldn't really be changed. The scripture was the proof, the record of authenticity, about Jesus upon whose words and deeds the church was built. Even if the church can take up all these different rituals that really seem really almost indistinguishable from much of what passed for religion in Archaic times, they have to keep scripture around.

Now there is a lot of discussion about whether the Gospels that got into the NT were really accurate or if someone made them up or if there were better, earlier records out there. It's all very interesting. My point in the first half of Authority Under Uncertainty is that no matter what New Testament historians come up with in answer to these questions, a revised Gospel is never going to stand on its own, you have to look at it in relation to the other religious scriptures and traditions that are basically popping up in this same 1,000 year window. If we want to understand the wider meaning of this Axial shift, we have to adopt an approach that is as eclectic and heterodox as possible.

And there are a lot of religious anthropologists who say this when they look and claim, hey, there was clearly a revolution in human consciousness that begins around 800 BCE with the dawn of Greek civilization and with a few other markers in Persia and China and that extends perhaps all the way through to Muhammad in 600 CE, and perhaps we are still living through it—that is my take, really. But most anthropological explanations tend to rely on a fairly unstable assertion for why we have to be eclectic about this process, asserting claims about respecting all religions, or that all human consciousness is linked in a kind of Jungian way.

My explanation for the beginnings of modern religion, for the ideas recorded in the scripture that religious institutions were forced to preserve, is an economic one. People were realizing that the old certainties just did not work, and when someone like Socrates or Christ in the Mediterranean, Buddha in India, or Lao Tzu or Confucius in China their ideas had an impact. And even though these power structure emerge and form these institutions that are not all that different from the Archaic religious rituals—they can't get rid of those destabilizing ideas that were recorded in scripture.

A lot of these destabilizing ideas—which I talk about as a realization about the uncertainty of human knowledge—were written down into stable scriptures within a few hundred years after these revolutionary folks, maybe earlier in the case of Lao Tzu (if he existed, maybe he even wrote them down himself). In any case, the new religious institutions—the orthodoxies—that formed in the wake of these folks had to pull together whatever records they could of their founding figures—even if the institutions, customs, and beliefs that these religious institutions would go on to rely upon and enforce in order to compete with other religions and negotiate with external economic actors would have little to do with the ideas in the scriptures.

Sly: So we've been talking a lot about religion in this interview, and some stuff about general economic history and what religion and economic history have to say to each other, but the book is also supposed to be about capitalism, about our present day, is it not?

J.A.: Well, right, so the big question that I am asking in this book is when you look at these religious texts, this moment in time with these major figures from history who are recorded in scripture, what do you learn? If you acknowledge that basically these scriptures have been reinterpreted over and over again throughout history, often in rather manipulative ways, but when we do not let this stop us from casting these scriptures in the light of their economic reality, in terms of the foregoing religious institutions of economic control that came before, we can then ask: what is the overriding lessons that these scriptures have given to some of our most formative thinkers about how to organize our lives in spite of uncertainty? If no earthly power can claim to be divinely ordained with the kind of certainty that the early states claimed, then how do we act, what is the basis of social order in this new uncertain reality?

If all of those attempts by the earliest state makers to control society through Archaic religion at the same time as they were attempting to control nature through their early forms of agriculture and domestication were failures, then how can we organize as individuals and as groups with the best hopes of achieving the best possible outcomes? If we cannot just sit there from above, or appoint some very intelligent person to sit there from above and say this is best, then what can we do?

Sly: Ok, what do we do? Or what does scripture tell us to do? If that's the question that you're asking?

J.A.: Well , the answer is a rather familiar one, but again I am trying to give it a new basis. The answer is: let people have the maximal possible freedom, and the best solutions will be most likely to evolve and emerge. This is really the theory that was at the origins of what the modern West has thought of as capitalism, classical liberalism.

The examples that I point to in Authority Under Uncertainty are the writing of the Declaration of Independence along with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and there are other great economic and philosophical texts that date from that moment: Locke and Hume are the most obvious. Economists since then—I'm thinking mainly of Friedrich Hayek and other people who have mainly influenced today's so-called libertarians—have often taken up this idea of economic liberty. It's not a term that I use too much, because I am not interested in waving that flag. It's a bit dangerous to use such a rhetorically charged term. My point in this book is to dig a little deeper to reveal the origins of the hostility to economic control that was all tied up with these modern revolutions and to say, hey it goes way back, and in fact the major record of the origins of these ideas are in the religions.

And, of course, Smith and the founding fathers—almost everyone at that time who was reflecting on economics and politics—was also talking about and reflecting upon religion and the history of religion. However, none of these guys—brilliant and original guys—who sparked the major debates about political order and economy, when to intervene, when not to—a debate which includes Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, even Marx—none of them—not even the more recent influential libertarians like Hayek, Von Mises, or their opponent in Keynes who are less explicitly religious in their way of speaking about society—none of these guys have ever had access to the rich anthropological background that we have today.

A lot of the earlier thinkers of political order and the proper relation of politics to economics had the idea of man's existence in a state of nature before society even existed. But its funny, even recent political thinkers have not done a good job at this—Frances Fukuyama's recent book is an example of an attempt to kind of think back to what ancient history, maybe even pre-history has to teach us. He has some nice passages on debunking the nature-culture dichotomy that people like Locke, Hume, and Rousseau ascribed to almost wholeheartedly. Yet, I think Fukuyama in this big massive global study published last year still misses the point about these different origins. He is really tied to this idea—a presupposition about how all these cultures outside the West are essentially different civilizations, and why did capitalism only arise in the West, etc. I don't believe. He gets it from Max Weber. And I start Authority Under Uncertainty by asking whether Weber really missed the big picture of religion and capitalism. I hope I succeed in showing just how he did.

But anyway, this is how Authority Under Uncertainty starts, with a little discussion of Weber and of Smith, or how religion has played a role in our idea of capitalism—that we know of but that has not really been taken into account by people who want to argue against state control. Libertarians have missed just how deeply in human culture the origins or state control really go, because they don't like to deal with the thorny issues of religion, because these people like to align themselves with religious orthodoxies, not question them. This is the basis of the Republican party after all.

Sly: And what you've come up with then is a libertarian's take on religion?

J.A.: Sort of, that way of condensing the project has kind of occurred to me. But I don't like it, I'm suspicious of using the term libertarian because of what it connotes for people and because there are so many version of it. Mainly my problem with so-called libertarians is the rationale for liberty. Okay these people say that a minimal state, less intervention from above, and a free economy is best. I agree with that, but why? For me, you need a richer and more global explanation for this kind of discussion about economic liberty than what any libertarian thinker has offered and that includes Hayek, who for me is still the most interesting representative of these ideas. But Hayek has a lot of bizzarre contradictions and even outright errors which is something that I get into in the last chapter of my book, after I have gone into anthropology and then into scripture to describe how the linked problems of religious and economic control go deeper and are more instructive to us today than we have really ever imagined.

Of course, it all depends on how we define our terms, but libertarians often fall back onto this hackneyed idea that it is best to be free and I want to be free, I have a right to be free, so keep the government's grubby paws off my private property and so on, and so forth. What often gets lost in this kind of emotionalized argument against the state and against taxes, is that the original arguments for economic freedom was that controlled societies have always failed. It's not because you want liberty that we all should respect your property, it is because a society that is flexible and evolving just like the natural world, where there is competition, where the best solutions and most valuable arrangements persist. That more nuanced argument is the real argument for liberty. But the shortcut to people's knee-jerk, “keep your hands off my stuff” obscures the more subtle rationale that is nothing less than the origin of this country's political system.

From the perspective of politics, the authentic libertarian argument—whose religious and anthropological history I have tried to lay out in Authority Under Uncertainty—is not that freedom is good for me, my private property is good for me, I deserve it, I earned it, therefore I must keep the government off of my freedom and property. No, in fact, the argument that this country was built upon is that a system that is going to allow individuals to compete and let organizations evolve without anybody trying to plan things too much, or to shift things over to their own interests, or to get a whole lot of people locked up into a kind of archaic worldview where we imagine that we know what the gods are telling us to do for sure and for all time—the American idea is that an open and evolving economic system is best: nothing more and nothing less than that. This simply follows out the ideas that emerged at the time of the Axial shift with decline of the Archaic religions and the earliest civilizations.

Now, the bizarre thing is that because libertarians often get caught up on in an emotional appeal to private property and “keep your taxes of my stuff” they often align with weird strains of religious traditionalism—the Tea Party is perhaps the defining instance of that. It's what Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, FOX News, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare thinking is all about.

One way of thinking about what I did in this book was to look into this kind of “unholy alliance” if you will, and say well, yeah there are a lot of brilliant ideas in the history of religion, particularly in scriptures—that we miss if we just think okay these traditionalist orthodoxies own religion. There is a lot that is interesting in this idea of capitalism, a lot of vital thoughts, and stuff we can't do without, and stuff if we just react to the contemporary mouthpieces for big religion and big corporations, so-called libertarians, we are going to be in trouble. Instead, I am saying, hey these supposed advocates have made some big mistakes—common mistakes, if you look at history, but worse than ever—about where our ideas of religion and capitalism came from. If you do look at it, you see things a lot differently in terms of how to organize political systems, about the meaning of the words and deeds that gave rise to religion as we know it and about the links between these different founding figures and events. All of this gives you different clues for what you are really looking for from a healthy free market economy. What you have here in our contemporary cultural and economic crises is—above all—an opportunity to rethink what kind of effects proactive, creative, passionate individuals and organizations—particularly young people who aren't already entrenched and inextricably invested in political, legal, and corporate structures as they are, particularly people who we wouldn't tag as an “authority”—can have on our political and economic future moving forward?

Sly: So what does the future look like?:

J.A.: Well, that to me, is a matter of uncertainty, but I do hope to publish another book talking in more detail about the implications of the story I tell in Authority Under Uncertainty.

One thing, I feel relatively sure about is that most of the institutions that we have in place in terms of education, media, government, and financial structures are more or less contaminated by the old model, by traces of the archaic religious and economic way of organizing things. We have not succeeded in breaking free from all of this. Nobody—at least nobody who has interested their lives in building these institutions and stands to lose a lot from the recognition that they are flawed—wants to admit that. So, you know this is an opportunity to challenge a lot of those and history is on our side in that. History proves the continual failure of authoritative leadership and continually affirms that success, innovation, new and important ideas, life-changing, world-saving ideas always come from unexpected places, from individuals who have not been ordained by the powers that be. Now, how do you build that kind of revolutionary innovation into your social order? It seems a paradoxical question. I think that our idea of capitalism is in some ways an attempt to come to grips with that problem.

Just to end on a religious note, this is one of the things that has really interested me about Zen. It's funny—most American know the word, Zen—and its kind of all over marketing. The funny thing is, most people have no idea about the amazing nature of Zen scripture, which is to say, the Koans. Maybe people have heard of Koans, but they don't know what they are. Basically, the Koans are records where a Zen monk, basically the closest thing to an authority that Zen Buddhism in China of the later first millennium CE had, a leader of a monastery, a community, a teacher, where one of these authorities opened his authority up to questioning. Its a case, an instance of a challenge where the idea of a non-authority is given the opportunity to publicly challenge authority, and it goes on record.

So on a religious level, it means, keeping the scripture permanently open to new innovations. More importantly, it means, keeping the political-economic order of the Zen monasteries open to challenge and revision, innovation. No one is beyond reproach. I think our contemporary financial and political leaders could take a lesson from that obviously. We have a lot to learn from Zen and especially from the Western religions when considered in light of Zen and Taoism—but not just in a spiritual way, but in a very very practical way

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